Four ways to combat climate change

Robert L. Evans is a professor in the Clean Energy Research Centre at UBC. His book, “Fueling Our Future: an Introduction to Sustainable Energy,” published by Cambridge University Press, was short-listed for the 2008 Donner Prize.

On a per capita basis Canada is one of the most energy-intensive countries on the planet, and nowhere is there a more urgent need for action on climate change than here. For too long, however, the debate has been primarily about the impact of climate change, and about emissions targets, and not on how the increasingly ambitious targets might actually be met.

The time has come for action, and to realize that in the broadest terms there are only four ways to reduce our over-reliance on fossil fuels. Simply put, these are; choosing to use less energy, using energy more efficiently, capturing and storing carbon dioxide, and switching from fossil fuels to other primary sources of energy.

The first of these approaches relies on individual action, while the remaining three responses require a more technological approach. Choosing to use less energy just means that we can reduce our contribution to climate change by walking or cycling rather than driving, and by turning down the thermostat or putting on a sweater. This requires changing the attitudes and habits of a large majority of the population, which is a daunting task.

There is a precedent for action, however, with lessons to be learned from the recycling revolution that has taken place in the last two or three decades. While 30 years ago it was only a minority of people who took the trouble to recycle their newspapers, cans and bottles, now it is a mainstream activity. If we care about the planet we should be able to follow this example, and each decide to do something to reduce our daily use of energy. This revolution, like the blue-box revolution, is likely to be led by young people setting an example for the rest of us.

The second approach to reducing fossil fuel consumption, and therefore carbon dioxide emissions, will rely on a dedicated effort to increase energy efficiency. There is not much new technology required for this, since most techniques, such as increasing building insulation, installing double-glazed windows, or replacing old furnaces with high-efficiency units, are well established.

There are often financial barriers, however, since there may be a considerable capital cost, while savings accrue over time. Institutional barriers can also be important, with probably the best example being the landlord-tenant relationship in which a tenant pays heating costs while the landlord pays the capital cost for any improvements to the heating equipment. In this case there is no incentive for the landlord to make improvements while the tenants are powerless to take any action to increase their efficiency of energy use and reduce their costs. In many cases government action through the provision of low-cost loans, or regulations to ensure that landlords make their buildings as energy efficient as possible, is urgently needed.

The third approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is carbon capture and storage, or CCS for short. When a fossil fuel is burned all of the carbon is released in the form of carbon dioxide, the principal anthropogenic (human generated) greenhouse gas. If this gas could be captured and stored underground, then fossil fuel use would no longer be a threat to the climate. Techniques to capture and store carbon dioxide are being studied and several test sites have been established, including one in Saskatchewan being sponsored by the International Energy Agency.

The ability to capture carbon dioxide is well-established, but tends to be expensive because of the need to process very large volumes of gas. In principle, underground storage is also a viable technology, although much more work needs to be done to identify suitable sites and to determine if the carbon dioxide really can be stored underground permanently and safely.

Although CCS may be suitable for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from stationary processes, such as a coal-fired power plant, there is no practical way to capture and store gases emitted from moving vehicles, ships and aircraft. The transport sector, which is the main consumer of oil, must then look for other techniques to reduce oil use and therefore greenhouse gas emissions.

Finally, then, the fourth option to combat climate change will rely on new technology aimed at “fuel-switching” away from fossil fuels, which now supply about 80 per cent of global energy needs, to more sustainable options. For example, one promising way to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases from automobiles is to switch to electricity as the main energy “carrier” rather than using gasoline. Hybrid vehicles, which have both a battery and a conventional internal combustion engine, are beginning to show how this might be done.

With the current generation of hybrid vehicles now on the road, all of the energy to drive the vehicle still comes from the gasoline in the fuel tank. The next step in the evolution of these vehicles will see the introduction of “plug-in hybrid vehicles” with an increased battery capacity and the ability to re-charge the battery from an electrical outlet when the vehicle is not in use. The engine will be smaller, and will only be used when the battery needs to be re-charged, or to assist with acceleration or hill-climbing. These vehicles will likely be very popular with commuters since a “fill-up” with electricity will cost the equivalent of about 30 cents per litre of gasoline due to the low cost of electricity and the much higher efficiency of the electric drive-train.

Widespread adoption of plug-in hybrids will then shift the burden of providing energy for transportation from fossil fuels to the electricity system. Of course for this technique to be effective, the electricity must be generated from non-fossil fuel sources. In B.C., where some 90 per cent of our electricity is from renewable sources, a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions could be achieved. This will also require B.C. Hydro to expand generation capacity to support the switch from gasoline to electricity. Fortunately, B.C. has many options for increased use of renewable energy to generate electricity, including both large-scale and smaller “run of the river” hydroelectric plants, as well as the use of wind and tidal power, geothermal energy, and bio-fuels.

These four approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions provide a powerful arsenal in the coming battle to combat climate change. We need to ensure that our politicians and BC Hydro planners are fully prepared for the challenges that lie ahead, and encourage them to develop policies and plans to pursue all four approaches aggressively.

In association with UBC’s Celebrate Research Week, Prof. Evans will be presenting a free public lecture on this topic at UBC Robson Square on Tuesday, March 9 at 6:30 p.m. For more information, visit: